Notations: The Blog of Composer Malcolm Caluori

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The "Chicken & the Egg" of Music & Lyrics

Wherever words and music are melded, the vocal curious inevitably ask the ever present question of the author(s): "Which comes first, the music or the lyric?" The answer may vary from collaborative team to team, from single artist to single artist, but also from work to work. This is why the question persists time and time again. Both music and lyric each may come first, and no given answer is necessarily permanent from creation to creation.

As for myself, I have found myself in both positions even within a single project. Dangerous Liaisons was such a varied score and had so many numbers that there were multiple approaches that were undertaken.  The score to Liaisons is tightly woven with leitmotif and thematic intricacies.  Clearly the major musical themes were to be supplied by the free-standing songs and set pieces, so these had to come before the "scenes", the more plot driven moments of the show.  But sometimes I was so inspired by a number's concept that I wrote the music first, so that I could be sure to integrate my specific musical concepts, and sometimes Johnathan would be drawn to write lyrics for numbers before I set them to music.

And so the major thematic chunks were born, and as the work continued into the intermittent gaps, the "scenes", my experience on both sides of the egg taught me that I enjoyed both.  I appreciated working from a section of libretto, where I had specific words in front of me, providing an overall arc to the number and also a moment to moment "script" for me to interpret dramatically.  I found that having words first had a great deal of influence on the nature of the melodies I created.  Not only rhythmically and formally, having to deal with the meters and form provided in the lyrics, but also from word to word, as I chose my interpretation and how to express it within the structural boundaries defined by the lyric.

But I also found that writing the music first left me complete freedom, without any predefined boundaries to influence my free creative expression.  While the lyric was often regarded as a comforting guide, providing a starting point that the blank page cannot provide, composing the music first was not always daunting when the project itself is an inspiration.

This lesson, the pros and cons of both sides, called forth a desire within me for a method which gave me the best of both worlds, creatively.  One which allowed both composer and librettist the complete artistic freedom of "going first", one which gave me specific, moment to moment inspiration throughout a scene allowing me to compose music precise to the drama without the structural bonds of a pre-existing libretto.  It is this method that was reserved for the most important moments of the show.  How does it work?

First of all, being the most important moments in the show, the most dramatically charged or pivotal, these moments were not approached until all other numbers were completed first.  This assured that all possible themes from throughout the show were available to be drawn upon for use in these moments, the broadest possible relevant palette.  It allowed for our ideas on character development to have first fully matured.

When it was time, we followed the method I created this way: Johnathan would first write a prose version of the scene, allowing him full reign over dramatic arc, progression of dialogue, and over all scene construction.  This prose version showed me exactly what was in the scene, and the exact order that it happened.  I then would compose music following this specific road map, but with full musical freedom, thematically, rhythmically, and structurally, and writing musical vocal lines sufficient to express the prose words presented to me.  After enjoying the pleasure of meticulously constructing a finely tailored score, the vocalists' lyrics would then finally be filled into the score by the librettist, following the prose model of the scene and using the melodic material I'd composed for each line.

Though the method does call for an extra step on the part of the librettist, the experience proved to be so enjoyable and successful that Johnathan has even suggested that he would be willing to approach an entire stagework this way, while I still feel that the method serves best for "scenes" than for "songs", and is more useful when reserved for crucial dramatic moments.

So, when the question is put to me, music first or lyrics? I'm no longer sure that I even consider the question itself valid.  Both have their merits.  I believe that this is but one more artistic choice, and in my book, all artistic choices should be considered as "tools".  The master's challenge is to know not only how to use each tool in the box effectively, but just as importantly, when to use which.

1:31 am edt          Comments

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